Steal Away to Kyoto's Most Romantic Lane

When travel writer Pico Iyer moved from Manhattan to Kyoto, Japan, he made his home on the quaint Nene-no-michi lane and happened to fall in love in the process.

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Courtesy of Paco Alcantara/Getty Images.
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As you round the large temple on the corner, and leave behind the little cottage commemorating the 17th-century haiku poet Basho, you come out onto a narrow lane maybe one Fifth Avenue block in length, so thin that even a taxi can barely slip through it. To your left, out of sight, stands a line of great temples, tucked into the eastern hills of Japan's ancient capital, Kyoto, like secret love letters. At the far end is another pagoda, and a small-waisted lane leading up into the single most romantic pilgrims' quarter in Japan. To your right, halfway up, is a lantern designating an intimate ryokan, or traditional inn, where kimonoed grandmas will flirt and tut-tut and cajole you into giving up the big room with a view of spires for a smaller one that's no cheaper.

Courtesy of Jonathan Pellgen.
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Nene-no-michi, named after Nene-san, the wife of Japan's most formidable warrior and conqueror, Hideyoshi Toyetomi, rests inside the Gion district in the modern city like a lobe-tickling whisper. The exquisite French patisserie at the lane's beginning gets you in the mood, and the tatami room beside it (with giant champion carp drifting around its jewel-like garden and green-tea floats on the menu) gives you time to collect yourself. The shops on the other side—one selling old prints, another specializing in owls—quickens your anticipation.

And, at the heart of the little street, discreetly veiled by high walls, sits the sub-temple where Nene-san once lived as a nun, its small rooms made for stolen murmurs.

Courtesy of Cecil Lee.

Valentine's Day in Japan is always a luscious treat, if only because the Japanese love everything that's delectable, suggestive and, yes, sweet.  And although only women are supposed to give presents to men on February 14, there's a second festival—White Day, on March 14—when men can return the favor (thus, in the characteristic Japanese way, doubling the pleasure and number of gifts exchanged).

Temple and garden at the Kodaiji Temple. Courtesy of David Messent.

For me there's more sensual delight to be relished in Japan than anywhere I've found: one reason I've lived here since moving from New York City to Nene-no-michi in 1987. But the joy of it is that so many of the inflections of that delight can be found along this single alleyway of brush-strokes. Mille-feuilles made to move Proust to sighs, and truffles that dissolve at the touch? They're at the perfectly-named Patisserie des Reves. A place for losing yourself in the lyrical stratagems of Kyoto, as evoked by Kawabata in his ravishing novel Koto, or Tanizaki in The Makioka Sisters? Try Rakusho, the tatami tea-room. Somewhere to walk hand-in-hand beside great stands of bamboo and see a five-pointed maple blaze in a transparent pond? Go to Kojdaiji, the temple (founded by Nene-san) that presides over the lane like a chaperone.

And if there's no room for completing the evening in the traditional inn, Rikiya, you can find a modern "love hotel" just two minutes down the hill.

Pico Iyer is the author of twelve books, including The Lady and the Monk, about the romance that filled his first year in Kyoto.

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